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WestJet’s latest bomb scare: What you need to know

The Mounties are investigating this week’s fifth bomb-threat hoax against WestJet as a criminal mischief investigation, the airline said Thursday, after Flight WS1709 landed safely in Victoria, was cleared of passengers and searched.

The disruptions to five WestJet flights and one Air Canada plane this week have left passengers scrambling as airlines dealt with halted operations and route diversions. Here are a few facts about how such situations are handled, and what legal consequences culprits can expect.


Constable Matt Maloney of the Saskatoon police’s Explosive Disposal Unit removes two cats from a plane during a bomb-threat investigation in Saskatoon on June 27. (Saskatoon Police Service/The Canadian Press)

How many times has this happened?

June 25, Flight AC143: A note is found at St. John’s International Airport in the washroom of an Air Canada flight that authorities considered a potential bomb threat. The airport is temporarily closed.

June 27, Flight WS391: An Edmonton-to-Halifax WestJet flight lands in Saskatoon after police said a call was made claiming explosives were on board.

June 29, Flight WS442: An Edmonton-to-Toronto WestJet flight is forced to divert to Winnipeg because of an unspecified threat. Six passengers suffer minor injuries during the evacuation.

June 30, Flight WS323: A WestJet flight from Toronto to Saskatoon lands safely after a threat.

July 1, Flight WS722: A bomb threat forces a Vancouver-to-Toronto WestJet flight to divert to Calgary.

July 2, Flight WS1709:A WestJet flight from Las Vegas to Victoria lands safely after receiving a bomb threat.

Nothing suspicious was found in any of the incidents.


WestJet’s response

WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer said the rash of threats has triggered “rumours and speculation” that the airline is not willing to comment on. “We will continue to work closely with law enforcement to find those responsible. Safety remains our top priority and we will continue to be vigilant to keep our guests and our crews safe,” he said.


What legal consequences can people expect for bomb-threat hoaxes?

Police say the investigation is continuing and there have been no arrests.

Christine Duhaime, a counterterrorism lawyer with Duhaime Law, told The Canadian Press that even an unsubstantiated threat can trigger very serious penalties. Even a hoax can result in jail time, she said, and sending threats could be seen as consistent with terrorist efforts and tactics to attack critical infrastructure. “Those attacks are either going to be real, or will surface as these did, with threats for which no real physical attack occurs,” Duhaime said in an e-mail. “They are attacks nonetheless, because they are intended to cause economic harm to the private sector, debilitate critical infrastructure and drive up costs for counter-terrorism programs in the West.”

A WestJet flight departs Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Enfield, N.S., on July 2. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)


How often do airlines have to contend with bomb threats?

Not very often, according to industry observers. Edward McKeogh, President of Canadian Aviation Safety Consultants, told The Canadian Press that it’s not unheard of for airlines to go a full year without fielding a threat of real substance. McKeogh said the major airlines tend to be the most common targets.


How do airlines typically respond?

While individual protocols may vary among airlines, McKeogh said the basic approach is the same – every threat must be taken seriously. “As soon as they find out about a threat of this nature, they relay it to the flight in question, or sometimes all flights that are airborne, and those flights will then divert to the nearest suitable airport,” he said. This wasn’t always the case, however.

Jock Williams, a retired flight safety officer with Transport Canada, said 9/11 brought about significant changes in the way even idle threats are handled. Airlines, he said, used to have much more discretion to assess individual situations. “In the past, they’ve made an educated guess and maybe said, ‘No, we won’t do anything about this,“’ he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see much ‘No, we won’t do anything about it’ anymore.”


What do the hoaxes cost?

McKeogh said each diversion is an expensive proposition. By the time an airline reroutes the flight, deplanes the passengers, ensures they’re taken care of at the alternate airport, inspects the aircraft and then resumes the original course, he said the bill can easily equal tens of thousands of dollars.

With a report from Tu Thanh Ha

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